David Cameron discusses strategies to end FGM and forced marriage at the Girl Summit last summer. Photo: Oli Scarff/WPA Pool/Getty
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What are the practical steps we need to take to end FGM in the UK?

As MPs discuss a national action plan to end FGM, campaigners explain the practical steps the country needs to take to eradicate this abuse.

It was once an obscure, hidden strain of violence against women. Ignored by the state, its victims were silenced and isolated, their pain dismissed. But, in recent years, female genital mutilation has been brought into the public consciousness. We now have data on how widespread FGM is in the UK, and it tells us that 170,000 women and girls are living with the effects of this abuse in the UK, and another 65,000 girls aged 13 and under are at risk. For the first time, an accused practitioner of FGM is being prosecuted.

But despite all this high-profile conversation, the government is still yet to systematically tackle the growing prevalence of this violent abuse in the UK with the implementation of an organised, national plan of action. Last year, a major inquiry was launched by the Home Affairs Committee to do just that: find practical solutions to end this in this country. Its findings have now been published, and this afternoon, in the stately calm of Westminster Hall, MPs debate whether they feel there is “a case” for government action. 

Grassroots activists fought hard to bring this issue to Westminster. Two major anti-FGM organisations, Daughters of Eve and Equality Now, set up a petition last year which called on the government to end this “very British problem”, and sparked the current inquiry. But now the Home Office has finally responded to their pleas for action, is their proposed course the right one?

The report outlines five clear steps that should be taken to eradicate FGM in the UK:

  1. The achievement of successful prosecutions
     
  2. The safeguarding of at-risk girls
     
  3. Changes to the law
     
  4. Improved working with communities to abandon FGM
     
  5. Better services for women and girls already living with FGM
     

Nimko Ali, the co-founder of Daughters of Eve, has written with disarming candour on FGM, as both a survivor and a campaigner. She has repeatedly called for practical solutions to end the practice, insisting that it simply needs to be handled in the same way as all other forms of child abuse. She told me that while she celebrates the fact that action finally seems to be approaching, she feels that some aspects of the report misunderstand the issue, specifically the aim of “working with communities to abandon FGM”. That word, “communities”, she says, is troublesome to her. 

“It’s dehumanising. I wonder, ‘what do they mean when they say communities?’ These girls are Bristolian, or they're Welsh, or they're Londoners. There's no single community identity. I always say, forget culture, forget community, and think about the child.” 

It’s an area of the FGM debate that has been particularly thorny. On Newsnight in 2012, Muna Hassan, a young activist for the equality charity Integrate Bristol, explained how she saw politicians’ slowness to act on ending FGM as a result of both a racist othering of FGM victims, and a fear of appearing culturally insensitive. “What would you do if the girl had blue eyes and blonde hair? Would FGM still be carrying on in the UK?” she asked, before telling David Cameron to “grow a pair and do something about FGM”. Last year, Diane Abbott was criticised for saying that the practice was “embedded in culture”, and said that the government must “understand why people who consider themselves conscientious family members would collude with this process”. 

Ali thinks the idea of “working with” practitioners of FGM is unhelpful. “This is child abuse, it’s as simple as that. You wouldn't negotiate with paedophiles in order to defeat paedophilia. No, you engage with a wider general public.” 

Ali also sees the report’s emphasis on prosecuting practitioners of FGM as misplaced. “Prosecution should not be the priority. Every time someone says, ‘We need to get a prosecution’, I just keep hearing that we've already failed a girl in order to get that prosecution. Preventing FGM is the priority. If we prevent it, then we break the cycle.”

Ali knows from experience that the women directly affected by FGM are more concerned with prevention than prosecution. “I had a conversation with a mother once, who was concerned about her daughter being cut. I asked her, ‘would you want somebody arrested if they cut your child?’ and she said, ‘Ultimately, they committed a crime, but I can never un-cut my daughter’.

“What she said stayed with me, it was so powerful, and so heartfelt. A prosecution can legitimise your pain as an adult, but it can never undo those scars. So I would rather prevent those scars and prevent the trauma, than get someone locked up in prison. Behind every prosecution is a child that has been failed.” 

Mary Wandia, FGM programme manager at Equality Now, similarly prioritises several other prevention strategies over retrospective arrests. She argues that to eliminate FGM, “simultaneous actions need to take place aimed at prevention, protection of girls at risk, service provision and working in partnerships”. While she acknowledges that progress has been made, she notes that “the government has yet to fully engage on several fronts, including the adequate provision of support to survivors, raising awareness at a national level and ensuring that front-line professionals receive appropriate training to ensure that all girls at risk are protected.” 

Anti-FGM campaigners come back again and again to the training of front-line professionals. The Home Office report makes it clear that an awareness of how to help at-risk girls is a vital tool for all professionals working in health care, education, social care, and the police forces. It’s this part of the report that chimes most strongly with the advice of activists. 

Muna Hassan told me that in her mind “one of the most important things the government can do to tackle FGM is to ensure education around gender based violence is statutory in all schools across the UK: in order to end FGM within a generation we need to empower the future generation of parents. Compulsory training and reporting amongst all sectors working with children is also incredibly important. Being able to tell a child is at risk, could possibly save a life.” 

It’s this part of the report that Ali, too, is most hopeful for. “It's about empowerment and education. And we need to give teachers, social workers, and all those people the tools and the confidence to say ‘something’s wrong.’” 

What would Ali say to the MPs debating today? “I think it's great that this conversation is happening, but it's taken a long time to actually get to this point. Let's not play party politics with the lives of young women and children, and let's just move this forward. We can end FGM but it's about working together in order to do that. There are girls who today are three years old, and by the time the next parliament ends in 2020, those girls will be at risk of FGM. So I want to know what the next government is going to do to save them. There are children being born today that we can save.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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To the Commonwealth, "Global Britain" sounds like nostalgia for something else

And the former colonial subjects have a less rose-tinted view of the past. 

Earlier this month, Boris Johnson became the first British foreign secretary to visit the Gambia since independence. His visit came a few days before the inauguration of the Gambia's new President, Adama Barrow, who has signalled his intention to re-join the Commonwealth - an institution that his dictatorial predecessor had left in protest at its apparent "neo-colonialism".

Accusations of neo-colonialism, regrettably, seem to be of little concern to the foreign secretary. After Johnson committed himself to facilitating the Gambia's Commonwealth re-entry, he declared that "the strength of our partnerships show that Global Britain is growing in influence and activity around the world". 

His comments are the latest example of the government's Brexit mission-creep in its foreign engagements. Theresa May mentioned "Global Britain" no fewer than ten times in her Lancaster House speech last month, reminding us that Britain "has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world" and emphasising the UK's post-referendum desire to "get out into the world". Ministers' repeated subsequent referencing of Global Britain has almost come to the point of re-branding Great Britain itself. But now the government seems to be directly equating Global Britain with the Commonwealth, the organisation comprising most of the former territories of the British Empire. If the Commonwealth is wooing back former members and seemingly growing in stature, that must mean Global Britain is doing the same. The Gambia's proposed re-admission to the Commonwealth is reconfigured as a victory for British clout and prestige in the face of the Brexit naysayers.

But the Commonwealth cannot be a vehicle or front for Global Britain, on either a technical or political level. The Commonwealth emphasises that it is an organisation of 52 equal member states, without any preference in decision-making. India (population 1.26bn) and Tuvalu (10,000) are treated the same. The organisation is headquartered in London, receives the most money from Britain, and its members share elements of history, culture and political systems; but it is not a British organisation and will not take orders from the British government. Commonwealth states, particularly poorer ones, may welcome UK political, financial and developmental support, but will reject the spectre of neo-imperialism. Diplomats remark that their countries did not leave the British Empire only to re-join it through the back door. 

And yet, shorn of influence following the decision to leave the EU, and the single market so instrumental to British jobs and prosperity, the government is desperate to find an alternative source of both power and profit. The members of the Commonwealth, with their links of heritage and administration, have always been touted as the first choice. Leading Brexiter Dan Hannan has long advocated a "union with the other English-speaking democracies", and Liam Fox has been actively pursuing Commonwealth countries for trade deals. But the Commonwealth cannot replace the EU in any respect. While exports to the EU account for just under a half of Britain's total, the Commonwealth receives less than 10 percent of our goods. The decline of UK trade with the Commonwealth was taking place long before Britain joined the EU, and it has in fact revived in recent years while being a member. The notion that Britain is restricted from trading with the Commonwealth on account of its EU membership is demonstrably false.  

The EU, the beloved scapegoat for so many ills, cannot fulfil the role for much longer. Indeed, when it comes to the Commonwealth, 48 of the 52 members have already completed trade deals with the UK, or are in the process of negotiating them, as part of their engagement with the EU. Britain could now be forced to abandon and re-negotiate those agreements, to the great detriment of both itself and the Commonwealth. Brexiters must moreover explain why Germany, with a population just 25 percent larger than ours, exports 133 percent more to India and 250 percent more to South Africa than we do. Even New Zealand, one of Britain's closest allies and a forthcoming trade-deal partner, imports 44 percent more goods and services from Germany, despite enjoying far looser cultural and historical ties with that country. The depth of Britain's traditional bonds with the Commonwealth cannot, in itself, boost the British economy. The empire may fill the imagination, but not a spreadsheet.

The British imperial imagination, however, is the one asset guaranteed to keep growing as Brexit approaches. It is, indeed, one of the root causes of Brexit. Long after the empire fell into history, the British exceptionalism it fostered led us to resent our membership of a European bloc, and resist even limited integration with it. The doctrine of "taking back control" for an "independent Britain" speaks to profound (and unfounded) anxieties about being led by others, when in our minds we should be the ones explicitly leading. The fictional, if enduringly potent victim narrative that we became a colony of someone else's empire, has now taken hold in government. The loss of our own empire remains an unacknowledged national trauma, which we both grieve and fail to accept. The concept of being equal partners with like-minded countries, in a position to exert real, horizontal influence through dialogue, cooperation and shared membership of institutions, is deemed an offence to Britain's history and imperial birthright.

The relentless push for Global Britain is thus both a symptom and cause of our immense global predicament. Through an attempt to increase our power beyond Europe, Brexit has instead deflated it. Britain has, in truth, always been global, and the globe has not always been grateful for it; but now the government preaches internationalism while erecting trade barriers and curbing migration. After empire, Britain found a new role in Europe, but with that now gone, Global Britain risks producing global isolation. Despite the foreign secretary's rhetoric, the Commonwealth, geopolitically and economically, has moved on from its imperial past. It is not waiting to be re-taken.

Jonathan Lis is the deputy director at British Influence.